Q&A: On Graffiti

Q: What do you think about graffiti? Do you approve of it? Do you regard graffiti as an art? I would appreciate if you could answer! I’m a big fan of your artwork and I am an aspiring graffiti artist. 



This example of graffiti is really fun and it would be difficult to assert that it damaged its environment. It uses the anamorphic perspective made popular in 3D pavement art.

A: I am often asked my point of view on Graffiti and its relationship to pavement art. For me, the difference is in the intention of the artists. Graffiti artists work in isolation to impose their vision on an unwelcoming environment. Pavement artists interact with the public and seek to gain their interest and support. Pavement artists do not seek to permanently alter the environment, but hope to enliven it for a moment. The word graffiti comes from sgraffito, which literally means to scratch the message into a surface. In Europe you can see examples of this scratching that have defaced artworks and monuments for centuries and perhaps millennia. This historical version of graffiti was certainly an imposition on history and culture especially because the damage was permanent and defaced beautiful things.

To me, art is nature’s way of expressing its creativity through human beings.  If graffiti is creative, it is art. The real question to pose is about the relationship between the artist, the art and the public. I believe that a work of art exists only in relationship to its public. It is absurd to assert that a work is important outside of that relationship. A work may be potentially important if a sector of the public will eventually embrace it, but most works do not survive long in a cultural vacuum.

Pavement art is aligned to graffiti because it allows artists to express themselves directly to the public without an intermediary, (such as a gallery or cultural institution). It is different from graffiti in the sense that pavement artists seek to entertain, amaze and challenge their public in the hopes of financial compensation. In general, graffiti is focused on the artists’ intense need for self-expression. Graffiti pretends not to be dependent on the public’s approval.

I think it is vital for humans to express themselves in the context of their culture without an intermediary. At the same time, individual self-expressions in public places that are unconcerned with their audience are egotistical and antisocial. These expressions may be valid if the goal is for social reform; (to undermine, criticize or protest the evils of society), but the artist must then be prepared to accept the inevitable consequences and limitations of these actions.

Graffiti is an art form that has largely been created by young people working independent of social structures, and this is its strength. Becoming fashionable, it has been embraced by some galleries and official venues. Context and audience changes every work, therefore no work in a gallery can claim to be entirely independent of public approval.  It is an irony of our time that we attempt this.

Aesthetically, I rarely “like” graffiti in the sense of wanting to live with it.  I can admire the vigor of the calligraphic expression and the virtuosity when it is present. I also truly appreciate the need for artists to work outside of conventional venues.  Graffiti is in fact a form of “outsider art” sometimes called “art brut”.  It represents the human need to create in its most powerful and fundamental form.  Outsider art reinvigorates all of the arts when they lapse into convention and repetition.

Graffiti as an art form has all of the challenges and problems of any other movement.  It constantly risks lapsing into conventions and creating venues that are at odds with its primary message.  Artists eventually seek some sort of acceptance or approval from some group of people.  It is a contradiction when part of the artists’ message is that they don’t care about acceptance.

The first question any artist needs to ask is, “Who is my audience, and what am I trying to say to them?” When the relationship between the artist and the public is compassionate, everything functions well. When it is antagonistic, there needs to be a good reason for the strife. If the graffiti expression is done in a closed venue for a specific and appreciative audience, then there is no reason to judge it at all.